Mum had been right about this place, it gave off a strangely 19th century vibe. And no, not with its Victorian grandeur. It reminded me of conjustion and survival. The houses were small, almost as small as the bedrooms in the place where I came from, jam packed tightly together, stacked unevenly as if they had been lazily thrown on a piece of land, then hastily up righted onto place, apparently as thoroughly as a fully satiated lion is on a dead carcass. I sucked in a deep breath, I couldn’t see any school here. On the map in my phone it was supposed to be right through a street 10 feet from me. I saw no street.
No, I saw a street, but for me, it was more of a passageway. So narrow that I felt on edge going in there, snaking between the houses as if desperately trying to connect each one to an outlet. Here and there, an even narrower passageway, if that was even possible, ventured into the darkness between two room sized houses. The community felt like one large poorly built house, the passageway trying to connect to all of its rooms. I felt deeply uncomfortable and was grateful for the people coming to their doorways quite frequently. Deep inside, the passageway merged into a thinner passageway, on sight of which I backtracked, already feeling snakes up my spine, encountering a woman looking outside her house. I asked her where the school was and up ahead this passageway she said. I asked her with a weird panic in my voice if it was through the narrow passage and she agreed. There was a part of the passageway I had to turn sideways to pass, the edge of two houses barely leaving any space.
Yes, people are living in such conditions, and no, I did not know that. Did I, at that moment, know that 30 years back these streets were prowled more often by the likes of those you never want to meet, unless you want your stuff taken, or worse yet, your life. Did I know why plenty of careem drivers had cancelled their rides when they had learnt where I was going? No. But my mum knew, and my mum was wary. I, on the other hand, felt a weird empowerment as I spent a part of my day at a place where every time my eyes landed on the street I saw smoke and trash lining the street as if it had claimed it’s own home in the street. I couldn’t imagine what this place was like 32 years ago.
32 years ago, when Idara Al-Khair hadn’t even existed. 32 years ago when the innocent children sitting in the classroom today, prowled the streets like an inconvenience to society. 32 years ago when they weren’t our problem. 32 years ago when no one cared. But one day, someone cared so much about these children, and he inspires so many people to care about them, so many people to believe they are our responsibility, that it drastically changes everything that was ever wrong with this place. That thing being illiteracy, that thing being no education. And that person who cared, whose eyes shine brilliantly when he talks about it even 32 years later, is Sir Muhammad Mazahir.
There are very few people in the world who would step up to the target as someone shot arrows or threw knives at them. Especially if they knew that the shooter’s target wouldn’t miss. This man stood in front of that target, not caring about the consequences. They shot at him brutally, but I guess it was fate of these children that he survived, that he stood his ground.
I trample safely around the school, soaking in its homely vibe. The environment feels soft, it’s a whole new earth in the middle of the solar system. Alive, breathing, in the middle of a place where people wear scary frowns on their faces for greeting. 32 years back, it wasn’t the safe place I feel it is today. It was a hideout, a sanctuary whose walls were weak. A sanctuary they would pick you out of, and dispose of you and nobody would ever even find out. And they did that to him. They singled him out, they took him away, they tried to scare him. Who? The people whose lives he wanted to change. Who else? The mafia and gangs. Tremendous that he survived all of the hate and all of the brutality, tremendous that his effort has educated 12,000 underprivileged people today, tremendous how he stands stronger than ever.
One of the most inspiring things about this place is not just in it’s extremely important purpose. The most illuminating thing to me was its sustainability. It does not depend on so and so to make sure it keeps running, it relies on itself and stands on its own two feet. It’s not a black hole that takes in and then takes more in. It generates and it feeds itself, and today, it’s strong and independent.
So what makes this place so strong? What makes it so out of the ordinary? One of the most amazing things is the “sasta bazaar” shop. The Al Khair volunteers collect old and new clothes, accessories, gadgets and basically everything they can by campaigning around karachi, and run a small store inside the campus which the people from all over the area have access to. The prices for these things are really low and affordable and everything is almost always of decent quality. The idea was amazing as it provides a lot of funding for the school itself and is an excellent example of social sustainability in itself, something we need in our lives again.
Of course work of such magnitude and excellence doesn’t go unnoticed and it’s not long before different agencies from around the world start supporting humanitarian work. A great collaboration knocked on Al khair’s door when JFSA and Greencoop organisations from Japan and Hansalim from Korea starting adding to Al Khairs list of self-sustainability. These huge organizations with memberships of magnitudes such as 600,000 people started a project where they sent consignments of used clothes from their countries to Al Khair at a low cost price, which Al-Khair sells for a reasonably satisfying profit.
Astoundingly and thankfully still, this door with foreign organizations wasn’t just one way. Al-Khair started providing degree awarding stitching classes to it’s female population a few years back, and these self-sufficient young girls are creating something extraordinary with their wild but much needed imagination. A cultural mix between Pakistani and Japanese clothes is something they’ve dared to delve into and it’s only as yet led to flourishing exports with Japan. This is a great achievement in itself and most of the people from highly privileged places cannot make a claim comparative to this one. Such a marvellous achievement. This is Al-Khair mini factory, which is doing the impossible under the walls which stand shockingly strong but ordinary.
Al-Khair didn’t just produce revenue to cover it’s cost and pay it’s teachers, the Al-Khair management took steps to reduce its basic costs. The most marvelous thing in this aspect was the solar panel roof of the school that brought down an approximate Rs.80,000 electricity bill to a Rs.8,000 a month. Astounding how they make themselves sustainable in ways that stand lessonful to all of us.
A man of such valor and holding such an astounding resume with a passion unmatched by any could only be expected to have yet more flourishing offspring and he didn’t cease to deliver in that aspect. Raised expectations brought yet better deliverance from someone who was getting so little material out of what he did. 3 years back, Muhammad Mazahir’s son, Saad Sheikh, brought about a much needed perspective with his teenage experience into the work his father had started. It’s almost astounding how he was around the age of 18 when he started what he did, however not in the least a shock.
Saad Sheikh started the youth wing three years back, with the idea in mind “that people won’t know what we’re doing unless they come out here and see what we’re doing,” because this is not something they do out in the streets where people who can sponsor can see them, this is something “we do in slums, in dump yards, and in the most backward and remotest areas people don’t even know exist, so how do we bring in sponsors and donors? That’s where the youth wing comes in.” Spreading the word through social media which helps news spread like wildfire helped Saad achieve a dream he had three years ago and simultaneously, the dream of many others with the project “Help a dream,” where college and university students are sponsoring Al-Khair students with 1000 rupees a month, which is, in my opinion, an outstandingly fantastic idea.
The youth wing didn’t start and stop there, it started teaching more people from Karachi than Al-Khair was originally educating. It started educating people like me, people who had no idea what happened outside the fancy bubble they lived in. People who didn’t know real struggle, people who had privileges and dreams handed out to them as if they were basic rights. The youth wing started the internship program, taking a minimum of two shifts a year, which allowed plenty of students from all walks of life to come and explore what happened inside the walls of Al-Khair. Today, I stand inside, completely shell shocked and astounded, and feeling as though I have wasted too much time not knowing Karachi. Al-Khair the place where distances dissolve inside classrooms, the place where the privileged and the underprivileged sit side by side and smile at each other with the warmest smiles, Al-Khair, where some crazy dreams come true is the Al-Khair I began to fall in love with from day one. This meant I was happy to know that it really was spreading like wild fire around us. With seven branches all around Karachi and a college providing a proper education with a strong curriculum, the Al-Khair team on it’s own two feet was doing something much more important than most social workers all across Pakistan. Al-Khair isn’t dealing with the people’s problems, it’s teaching people to not have those problems. Al-Khair isn’t giving people free medical assistance, Al-Khair gives people the knowledge to protect themselves. Al-Khair is making people independent, it’s building lives and helping dreams, and it continues to inspire me to do the same everyday.
Today, Al-Khair looks like a well established organisation. Today, it all looks smooth, it’s making a difference. Today, it’s registered as two separate organisations, the Al-Khair Business group and the Idara Al-Khair Welfare Society. Today, I walk in and I see a proper school, doing more than any other I’ve seen. What was it 32 years ago? A classroom that was more of a hideout for 5 students that sat around a man who felt just as helpless. I look into the crevices in it’s walls and I see the stories on the faces of the people who spent their life here, and I feel my heart clench with a power I have seldom felt. A risk taken, thousands of lives saved. Me? Inspired. Are you